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By Lynn L. Bergeson 

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) posted a WatchBlog item entitled “Can Chemical Recycling Reduce Plastic Pollution?” on October 5, 2021. The item looks at GAO’s September 2021 Science & Tech Spotlight: Advanced Plastic Recycling. According to GAO, chemical recycling could reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills, potentially reducing the release of chemicals into the environment. Chemical recycling can produce high-quality raw materials, decreasing the demand for fossil fuels and other natural resources. GAO states that the obstacles to using chemical recycling include process and technology challenges, high startup and operating costs, and limited incentives for recycling innovation and investment. GAO notes that new plastics produced from fossil fuels are typically cheaper to produce than recycled plastics, in part due to transportation costs and limited recycling infrastructure, making recycled plastics less marketable. Key questions for policymakers include:

What steps could the federal government, states, and other stakeholders take to further incentivize chemical recycling rather than disposal? What are the potential benefits and challenges of these approaches?

What steps could policymakers take to support a transition toward a circular economy -- one in which products are not disposed of but are recycled for reuse including innovation -- and investment in manufacturing and recycling capacity?

What might policymakers do to promote advanced recycling technologies while also reducing the hazards associated with existing plastic production and recycling methods?

One issue that GAO fails to consider is the regulatory status of depolymerized plastic. Furthermore, making a polymer by depolymerizing plastic is, according to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) nomenclature rules, different than the virgin polymer. These nomenclature complications will likely be a barrier to the commercialization of the closed-loop chemical recycling of plastics.


 

By  Lynn L. Bergeson

On April 13, 2021, Montana State University (MSU) researchers from its Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering published an article entitled “Biomineralization of Plastic Waste to Improve the Strength of Plastic-Reinforced Cement Mortar.” The study evaluates calcium carbonate biomineralization techniques applied to coat plastic waste and improve the compressive strength of plastic-reinforced mortar (PRM), a type of plastic-reinforced cementitious material (PRC). In an effort to reduce the environmental impact of plastic pollution, the study tested two types of biomineralization treatments: enzymatically induced calcium carbonate precipitation (EICP) and microbially induced calcium carbonate precipitation (MICP). While MICP treatment of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resulted in PRMs with compressive strength similar to that of plastic-free mortar, EICP-treated PET resulted in weaker strength than that of MICP. MICP treatment, however, affects differently the compressive strength of PRM in various types of plastics. According to the researchers, further work is needed to understand the impact of MICP treatment on interfacial strength. The authors hope that greater knowledge of this mechanism will lead to the establishment of biomineralized PRC as a high-volume method to reuse plastic waste.


 

By  Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.
 
On May 25, 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced the availability of up to $14.5 million in investments for research and development (R&D) to reduce waste and energy use related to the recycling of single-use plastics. As the largest subset of plastics found in landfills, single-use plastics, including plastic bags, wraps, and films, are also among the most challenging to recycle. According to DOE, plastic production uses the same amount of oil around the world as the aviation industry. Only ten percent of plastics, however, are currently recycled, and most of those plastics are downcycled, or repurposed into low-value products. DOE Secretary of Energy, Jennifer M. Granholm, hopes that these funds supporting plastic recycling innovation will be a “triple win by cutting plastic waste we see in our everyday lives, reducing industrial energy use and resulting emissions, and creating clean manufacturing jobs for American workers.” This is an effort by DOE to decarbonize the plastics industry and increase investments in recycling processes. There are many obstacles to plastic film recycling, including collection, sorting, contamination, and lack of economically viable methods for recycling and upcycling. Therefore, DOE will support various projects to develop viable solutions for converting plastic films to more valuable materials and designing plastics that are more recyclable and biodegradable.

In addition to a concept paper and full application, the application process requires a description of how diversity, equity, and inclusion objectives will be incorporated into the project. Submission deadlines are as follows:

  • Concept Paper – Deadline: June 28, 2021, by 5:00 p.m. (EDT);
  • Full Application – Deadline: August 16, 2021, by 5:00 p.m. (EDT); and
  • View Full Application Reviewer Comments – Between September 23, 2021, and September 28, 2021, by 5:00 p.m. (EDT).

 

By  Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

On March 25, 2021, researchers from the University of Maryland Department (UMD) of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) published, in Nature Sustainability, a study titled “A strong, biodegradable and recyclable lignocellulosic bioplastic.”  The study outlines UMD MSE’s new in situ lignin regeneration strategy that synthesizes a high-performance bioplastic from lignocellulosic resources such as wood.  According to the published article, renewable and biodegradable materials derived from biomass often exhibit mechanical performance and wet stability that are insufficient for practical applications.  Given these circumstances, the newly developed method for bioplastic production improves efficiency and reduces environmental impacts because it involves only green and recyclable chemicals.  The study can be accessed here, detailing the process in which porous matrices of natural wood are deconstructed to form the lignocellulosic bioplastic.


 

By   Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

On January 19, 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released its Plastics Innovation Challenge Draft Roadmap (Draft Roadmap) alongside a Request for Information (RFI) seeking stakeholder input on the draft document. The Plastics Innovation Challenge is a DOE program focused on accelerating innovations in energy-efficient plastic recycling technologies. The aim of the Plastics Innovation Challenge is to make domestic processing of plastic waste energy efficient and economically viable, develop new and improved plastic materials lacking the same end-of-life concerns as incumbent materials, and to reduce plastic waste accumulation. Based on these aims, the Plastics Innovation Challenge has outlined four strategic goals within its scope:

  • Deconstruction: Develop biological and chemical methods for deconstructing plastic wastes into useful chemicals;
     
  • Upcycling: Develop technologies to upcycle waste chemical streams into higher value products;
     
  • Recycle by Design: Design new, renewable plastics and bioplastics that are easily upcycled and can be manufactured domestically at scale; and
     
  • Scale and Deployment: Support an energy and material-efficient domestic plastics supply chain.

The Draft Roadmap, therefore, identifies key research needs and opportunities for DOE-sponsored research and development (R&D). It also identifies challenges and opportunities across thermal, chemical, biological, and physical recycling and upcycling methods, as well as material design strategies for recyclability. According to DOE, the Draft Roadmap additionally:

  • Provides an overview of the plastic waste problem;
     
  • Identifies the initiative’s 2030 vision, mission, strategic goals, and objectives;
     
  • Details challenges and opportunities identified by previous DOE activities;
     
  • Lays out key research directions;
     
  • Delivers an outline of current DOE activities, capabilities and coordination; and
     
  • Describes targets for each research area.

The Draft Roadmap aims to guide DOE efforts to meet the Plastics Innovation Challenge goals. The purpose of DOE’s RFI on the Draft Roadmap, therefore, is to solicit feedback from stakeholders to ensure the road toward the Plastics Innovation Challenge 2030 goals is clear and well positioned. Responses to the RFI are due to DOE by March 1, 2021.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson

On October 15, 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced the availability of over $27 million in funding for 12 projects supporting research and development (R&D) efforts toward advanced plastics recycling technologies and new recyclable plastics. These efforts are part of DOE’s Plastics Innovation Challenge, which aims to improve existing recycling processes that break plastics down into chemical building blocks that can be used to make new products. The 12 projects selected will address highly recyclable or biodegradable plastics, novel methods for deconstructing and upcycling existing plastics, and collaborations to tackle challenges in plastic waste.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

On August 17, 2020, DOE’s Reducing EMbodied-Energy and Decreasing Emissions (REMADE) Manufacturing Institute announced the availability of approximately $35 million in support of research and development (R&D) that will enable U.S. manufacturers to increase the recovery, recycling, reuse, and remanufacturing of plastics, metals, electronic waste, and fibers. This funding opportunity announcement (FOA) is part of DOE’s Plastics Innovation Challenge, a comprehensive program to accelerate innovations in energy-efficient plastics recycling technologies by supporting high-impact R&D for plastics.

DOE issued a request for proposal (RFP) under this FOA for projects in two areas: transformational R&D and traditional R&D. The full RFP can be accessed here. Letters of intent and project abstracts are due September 14, 2020.

The Deputy Secretary of Energy, Mark W. Menezes, commented on the FOA, stating: “The Trump Administration is committed to advancing innovative reuse and remanufacturing technologies, including advanced plastic recycling technologies, and the development of new plastics that are recyclable by design. Through the Plastics Innovation Challenge, and in partnership with REMADE, DOE is proud to take part in the development of new technologies that strengthen the U.S. manufacturing ecosystem.”


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson

On March 16, 2020, DOE EERE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and Bioenergy Technologies Office used a joint funding opportunity announcement (FOA) of up to $25 million for plastics recycling R&D. As part of the Department’s Plastics Innovation Challenge, this FOA has been titled “BOTTLE: Bio-Optimized Technologies to Keep Thermoplastics Out of Landfills and the Environment.” The BOTTLE FOA will support the development of new plastics capable of efficient recyclability and improvement of recycling strategies that can break existing plastics into chemical building blocks that can be used in other products.

Also as part of the Plastics Innovation Challenge, DOE has launched a new BOTTLE Consortium, which will be led by three of DOE’s national laboratories. The Consortium will work with stakeholders in industry and academia to focus on BOTTLE’s core mission. The three national laboratories in the Consortium currently are the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

This BOTTLE FOA includes three topic areas:

  • Highly recyclable or biodegradable plastics;
     
  • Novel methods for deconstructing and upcycling existing plastics; and
     
  • BOTTLE Consortium collaborations to tackle challenges in plastic waste.

Concept papers for the BOTTLE FOA are due on April 22, 2020, and full applications are due on June 18, 2020. Information on how to submit concept papers and applications can be found here.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

On February 19, 2020, the University of Oulu, Finland, announced that scientists from its Research Unit of Sustainable Chemistry have developed a new synthetic bioplastic that provides protection from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In addition to its UV-light blocking capacity, the transparent bioplastic made from a biomass-based copolymer with bisfuran structure, the new bioplastic also has airtightness capabilities three to four times higher than polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic. The raw materials used in the production of this entirely biomass-based plastic are hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) and furfural, which are biorefinery products derived from cellulose and hemicellulose. University of Oulu researchers chemically linked the two chemicals to create copolymer parts with bisfuran and furan-like structures. The research results have been published, and a patent application for the bioplastic has been filed for the new method developed.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson

On February 11, 2020, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), U.S. Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and U.S. Representative Katherine Clark (D-MA) introduced a bill that would phase out unnecessary single-use plastic products: Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020. The legislation would also hold corporations accountable for wasteful products, reform the broken waste and recycling collection system, and reduce wasteful packaging. According to Udall, 92 percent of plastic waste in the United States is never recycled. Focused on waste reduction and waste management policies that can reverse this trend in the country, the implementation of this act would shift the responsibility for recycling and cleanup to the companies that produce wasteful products. The Senate bill is co-sponsored by five other Democratic Senators and 28 Democratic House Representatives. The bill would:

  • Spur innovation through incentives for big corporations to make reusable products and items that can actually be recycled;
  • Establish minimum recycled content requirements for beverage containers, packaging, and food-service products, while standardizing recycling and composting labeling;
  • Reduce and ban certain single-use plastic products that are not recyclable;
  • Require big corporations to take responsibility for their pollution, requiring producers of plastic products to design, manage, and finance waste and recycling programs;
  • Spur massive investments in the U.S. domestic recycling and composting infrastructure, while pressing pause on new plastic facilities until critical environmental and health protections are put in place;
  • Create a nationwide beverage container refund program, which is successful at the state level;
  • Encourage the design of less wasteful products by ensuring that producers are responsible for cleanup costs and recycling infrastructure; and
  • End the hazardous practice of exporting plastic waste overseas to developing countries that do not have the infrastructure in place to manage that waste.

The full bill text can be accessed here, and a summary is available here.


 
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